Friday, February 20, 2009

Pragmatic Projects Dominate Livingston List

Whittling the hundreds of millions of dollars of projects submitted for Michigan's share of stimulus funds down to the money available looks like it is going to be a tall order.

The Livingston Press and Argus came up with an estimate of $231,697,739 for Livingston County projects. By my count, it is more like $321,735,065 because I counted projects by state agencies that are intended to benefit Livingston County -- Michigan Department of Corrections, Michigan Department of Transportation, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, as well as some by private agencies such as hospitals and wireless internet providers. Even that higher tally leaves out the multiple projects of South Lyon Community Schools, which covers part of Livingston County but is also in Oakland County.

Livingston County policymakers stuck mostly to the pragmatic, which means pothole fixing and energy conservation work. We can use plenty of both. Our roads are in terrible shape, as we all know. And energy conservation projects have a big payback for local units of government such as schools.

But it would be a shame if all the stimulus money went to just those two sectors of the economy. After all, the New Deal wasn't just the Civilian Conservation Corps, as valuable as that was. It also included the arts -- beautiful murals painted in post offices, incredibly haunting photos of people suffering through the Great Depression, some of the music of Woody Guthrie, and the WPA interviews with former slaves that are one of the most valuable archives in existence for understanding slavery. People in lines of work other than construction need jobs in this economic downturn, too.

And taxpayers need to get lasting value from the projects -- like those CCC parks projects and WPA sidewalks that are still in use. The projects also should benefit all segments of society -- children and the elderly, not just downtown businesses. They should not duplicate efforts or facilities, and they should help move the nation forward into the 21st century.

That said, there isn't much to pick from among Livingston County's proposals that go beyond the literal shovel-ready type projects.

The Livingston County Road Commission listed 15 projects, all small-potatoes type resurfacing. The list does not seem to be particularly well balanced -- six of the 15are in Cohoctah Township.

Municipalities listed a number of street and road projects, too, as did the Michigan Department of Transportation. Rep. Cindy Denby even had the nerve to ask for $5.1 million for work on the intersection of Interstate 96 and M-59, even though her party opposes this bill because it's only "spending."

Short-sighted as usual, the Livingston County Commission failed to request funds for the Ann Arbor-Howell commuter rail line known as WALLY, but others did. The city of Howell seeks funds for building five stations for the project (listed at $3.75 million under Washtenaw County's request) and MDOT seeks $7.1 million for other aspects of the project.

Schools put energy conservation projects -- more efficient boilers, better windows, etc. -- on their lists, but other types of "green" projects were lacking. Putnam Township is seeking $20,800 for a recycling project, but Recycle Livingston, which is in dire financial shape, requested nothing.

Recreation-oriented projects were few and far between. Some tennis courts in Howell and some work on the Lakelands Trail are a few examples. The Department of Natural Resources picked up the slack for the local lack of initiative with campground, playground, and other improvements in area recreation areas. Unfortunately, this also included funds for improvements around the controversial Island Lake shooting range.

A few other projects fall into the recreation/arts category -- the Howell Historic Society seeks an unspecified amount for renovaton of the old depot downtown, the Livingston Arts Council asks for $10.8 million to finish restoration of the Howell Opera House, and Michigan Information Exchange wants an unspecified amount for a museum-type expo near I-96 and U.S. 23.

Some projects seem unnecessary. Cheryl Stockwell Academy wants $20 million to build a new high school, when Howell has one going unused. We don't need to duplicate facilities. And as far as drainage for a new shopping center which was on the list -- do we really need more retail facilities right now when existing businesses lack customers? The millions for the Howell airport benefits too few people to justify the $3.45 million requested. And surveillance cameras for downtown Brighton conflict with democratic values of a free society.

Not a lot of original thought went into these projects. They appear to be things that were already in the planning stages rather than dreamed up merely to get federal money. They reflect communities that are having trouble maintaining what they have and that reduces the likelihood of wasteful projects.

But that tendency to color only inside the lines results in some big gaps. I didn't find any projects aimed at a project for the elderly, even though services for them have been cut locally. Libraries must have everything they need because projects for them are lacking, too.

Some of these projects may already have been selected for funding. Gov. Jennifer Granholm announced Thursday (Feb. 19, 2009) that some $853 million in road projects have been selected. And the regional planning agency of which Livingston County is a part, SEMCOG, will set priorities for some of the funding.

Most of these projects won't be funded, at least by the stimulus package. Their completion will come only after years spent on the priority list of entities with budgets that can't keep up.

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